The CIA’s Secret Budget

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How big is the intelligence budget? Usually we don’t know because it’s classified. Except this year we do know—it’s $44 billion. How do we know? Because someone accidentally let it slip a few days ago:

At a public intelligence conference in San Antonio, Texas, last week, Mary Margaret Graham, a 27-year veteran of the CIA and now the deputy director of national intelligence for collection, said the annual intelligence budget was $44 billion.

Big mistake? No, not at all. That $44 billion number shouldn’t have been a secret in the first place. Several former CIA directors have already come out and said that the overall intelligence budget figures should not be classified, that publishing these numbers wouldn’t harm national security so long as individual budget items were kept secret. The Brown-Aspin Commission in 1996 concurred. Indeed, from time to time I do wonder why no one ever takes article 1, section 9, clause 7 of the Constitution seriously:

No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law; and a regular Statement and Account of the Receipts and Expenditures of all public Money shall be published from time to time.

Yet this statement has obviously never applied to either the Department of Defense or the Central Intelligence Agency. So why don’t constitutional orginalists ever start complaining about this? One explanation is that this clause has been violated almost continuously since the country’s founding. In 1790, Congress appropriated $40,000 for “intercourse between the U.S. and foreign nations,” but didn’t require George Washington to account for how he actually spent the money. In 1794, Congress gave the president $1 million in a similar fashion—the money ended up being used as ransom money for American hostages in Algiers. Regardless of how useful these moves were, they were clearly unconstitutional, allowing Congress to decide willy-nilly when and where it gets to spend money without public oversight.

My preference would be to make everything related to intelligence and defense fully public, and carve out exceptions only if absolutely necessary, after long debate. Excessive secrecy has rarely served the country well. Now that the CIA is getting in the business of running a secret network of gulags around the world, and who knows what else, that holds doubly true. But this will never happen, especially since Democrats seem to place a premium on CIA secrecy these days. More realistically, Congress should at least publish overall figures for the intelligence budget and the basic purposes for which they’re spent.

Meanwhile, the GAO, the government’s auditing arm, still has only limited access to reviewing CIA programs. At the time of the Pike Commission in the early ’70s, the agency had no access to any budgetary information whatsoever. Today, the GAO has “broad authority to evaluate CIA programs,” but it still faces limitations: it lacks access to the CIA’s “unvouchered” accounts, and has no way to “compel” access to foreign intelligence and counterintelligence information. As I said, we’re not likely to get sunlight anytime soon, but giving the GAO increased access would be a good start.

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